Some of you already know (and my previous blog post has hinted) that I'm working in a Deaf environment for the first time in my life -- the Center on Access Technology (CAT, pronounced like the animal and signed as an acronym) in Rochester, NY. There's far too much to say about this -- I am glad to be here, it's an incredible learning experience, and I often feel like a stranger in a strange land... but if there's anything my training in writing and qualitative research has taught me, it's the power of vignettes and thick descriptions of small moments. So that's what I'll start to share. This one is a very small moment, but it was one of the first things that struck me.
So I'm a new faculty member, trying to figure out how one connects to internet, printers, and so forth, as one does. I'm hitting snags, so I walk over to the IT office inside NTID (basically, the Deaf college within RIT). As I'm waiting for the IT staffer to fiddle with my laptop and fix my connectivity issues, I look around. It's an IT office, full of familiar-looking cords and bins and tables of acronyms pinned to the walls. I see the student workers perched in front of monitors, typing into a ticketing system.
And then I notice that all of the desks facing the wall have mirrors on that wall, behind the monitors. And my first thought is "oh, that's nice - I guess it makes the room look bigger." And then one student walks up behind another and begins to sign, and the second student turns around to smoothly engage them. And I suddenly remember: they're all Deaf, too.
Like me, they can't hear footfalls from behind. Like me, they would startle from their monitors with a sudden touch on the shoulder. The mirrors let you see someone approaching from behind, a gentle nudge of motion in your periphery, the visual equivalent of footsteps walking up. And all of this is set up so matter-of-factly, just... how it is, of course we put mirrors behind our monitors! and not as some odd flustered accommodation that treats me as a conundrum in the hearing world ("well, Mel can't hear footsteps, because she's deaf, so what do we do?").
I'm used to having my existence in hearing spaces not forethought ("it never occurred to us that a deaf person might be interested in this event, so we didn't make it accessible"). I'm used to having laborious forethought be the best-case scenario, where I'm a solitary trailblazing oddity ("we're open to setting up captions for this; can you do the setting-up in your copious amounts of free time?"). It is strange to be in a place where my individual existence doesn't need to be forethought, because the space has already been created and inhabited by -- and expects to see more of -- people like me. It is strange to, at least in this one significant way, not be the Other.
Of course, it's more complex than that. Even NTID is by no means fully accessible (likewise with Gallaudet). The Deaf (and hard-of-hearing) communities are not homogenous; not everything meets everybody's needs. I'm not just Deaf, I'm lots of other things as well, and many of those things are still unexpected, unanticipated, not-forethought. There's a lot of solitaire trailblazing work to do here still.
But dang. A world that is accessible to me regardless of whether I'm there or not? A space that stays Deaf-friendly without me, whose Deaf-friendliness is not dependent on my constant nudging and performance of my life as a reminder that people like me exist? Approaches and solutions that go beyond the things my friends and I can think of on our own?